Director: Anders Thomas Jensen (Denmark, Sweden, Finland). Year of Release: 2021
It all starts with a girl in Estonia. Out looking for Christmas presents with her grandfather, she sees a bike she’d like, but not in that colour. This sets a chain of events into motion including a stolen bike in Denmark, a car that won’t start and an unhappy phone call which lead Emma and her daughter Mathilde to being in a train carriage just as it blows up.
Also on the train is Otto, a statistics expert who is better at the theory of his job than the practise. He has just been fired after completing a long project based on the idea that if we can find the reasons for all contingent events, we can effectively predict the future. The problem is, there are too many unknowables, so the only thing he’s actually proved is that rich people buy expensive cars and poor people buy cheap cars.
Otto offers his seat on the train to Emma, which indirectly results in her being killed in the blast. But he noticed a suspicious man leaving the train who left his food and juice uneaten. After a quick call to his friends Lennart and Emmenthaler, they use their hacking skills to identify the man with a 95% certainty. It turns out that he’s the brother of the leader of a biker gang. Someone due to testify against the gang and his lawyer were also killed in the blast.
The trio of social misfits go with their findings, first to the police – who aren’t interested, then to Markus, Mathilde’s father and Emma’s widower. Markus is a soldier with anger management problems. He’s been given compassionate leave, and is not doing well with his bereavement at all. He is insistent on rejecting any psychological help, even after he punches Mathilde’s boyfriend for no good reason.
The group plan their revenge on the biker gang – the Riders of Justice – but first they need a cover story so that Mathilde doesn’t twig onto what they’re up to. So, Lennart and Emmenthaler pose as grief counsellors (who could be better? Lennart has had over 4,000 hours of therapy). Markus gives them weapons training as they use his house to plan an attack.
Meanwhile, Mathilde is desperately trying to make sense of what has happened. She creates a pin chart of events on her wall, trying to find a relationship between the events leading up to her mother’s death. She considers religion as a way of dealing with her existential grief. What she doesn’t do is consult her remote father, who is unable to help her through her trauma.
What sort of film is Helden der Wahrscheinlichkeit? That’s not as easy a question to answer as you’d think. Rather, there are several possible correct answers. It’s a revenge drama of course, and an action film. It’s a comedy – with some hilarious scenes. And it’s a contemplation into the nature of fate and chance – indeed, the German title “Heroes of Probability” fits it well.
While parts of the plot may sound like the latest film written for Liam Neeson to phone his performance in, the characters are much more complex than that. Markus is the obvious action hero, but he’s shown in all his vulnerabilities – his inability to communicate with his daughter and the way in which he is still clearly damaged by his grief. And Emmenthaler proves to be surprizingly adept at assembling and using a gun. “I just like putting things together”, he says.
Indeed, the whole film is not exactly a celebration of nerd life – the geeks and hackers still seem strange, but no stranger than anyone else. Each has a strange haircut and is socially inadept, and yet they are all very human characters. They also all have their foibles which somehow makes them more loveable – Otto tries to take control when he has no right to, Lennart is prone to taking conversations off piste, and Emmenthaler lacks self-confidence and is worried about his weight.
Somewhere along their adventures, they are joined by Bodashka, a young Ukranian who had been effectively used as a sex slave by the biker gang. He is affectionately welcomed into the fold, as the group starts to bond. Otto teaches Mathilde how to play chess while her boyfriend takes a joyful picture of them for Instagram, which in retrospect may not have been a great idea.
This is a film that rattles on with such a pace that you’re not sure till afterwards how much you’re actually enjoying it. Then, you look back and think, not only do they not make films like this any more – they never made anything like this. Mads Mikkelsen is, as ever, magnificent, deadpanning his way through the film without giving us any sign as to how much he’s enjoying himself.
The very least you could do would be to give this a watch to ensure that you’re not missing out on the debate. Who knows? You may find it half as extraordinary as I did.